Little Men (2016), directed by Ira Sachs

little menAs a young teenager, I had deep feelings. When I dated a girl in the innocent 1950s, I thought I was going to marry her. It was devastating for me when I discovered that she was dating another guy. It took me a long time to recover, but I did and life moved on.

As I got older, I realized that one disappointment in life does not determine the future. I can learn from my experiences and become more psychologically resilient. This lesson is embedded in Little Men, a gentle coming of age drama depicting two boys who are very good friends for a short time, and then drift apart as they grow up and begin to see life from a more mature perspective.

The story begins as the Jardine family, parents Brian and Kathy and 13-year-old son Jake, move into a Brooklyn apartment they inherited from Brian’s father. On the street floor, there is a dress shop run by Leonor Calvelli and her 13-year-old son Tony.

Jake and Tony are very different from one another. Jake is withdrawn and quiet while Tony is socially adept and gregarious. Jake spends his spare time drawing and painting. Tony goes to acting classes and aspires to go to a high school of performing arts.

The adults in the story see life from an adult perspective. The boys are not privy to what goes on in the minds of their parents. What becomes a central issue is the low rent that Brian’s father had been charging Leonor for her store. The Jardines do not want to evict the Cavellis. They only want to increase the rent to come closer to the fair market value of the rental in a neighborhood where rentals have skyrocketed.

When the Jardines explain their dilemma, Leonor rebuffs them. She recounts stories of how Brian’s father considered Leonor part of his family and wished to keep her as a tenant in spite of the fact that the rent he charged her was way below market value.

Things become more complicated for the Jardines and Calvellis because the boys are becoming fast friends while the parents are becoming more entrenched in their contrary negotiating positions. Each parent is happy that their son has found a good friend, but the financial confrontation between the families looms in the background.

Little Men does not show us how to resolve disputes that are irresolvable, but it does suggest to us that the best way out of a dilemma is simply to go through an experience, learn from it, and emerge stronger emotionally because of it. Rabbi Beryl Wein, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “One of the truly major challenges of life is dealing with disappointment. In my long decades of rabbinic experience I have noticed how children are disappointed in their parents, parents are disappointed in their children, and spouses are disappointed with each other. This even extends to synagogue members who are disappointed with their rabbi, rabbis disappointed with their congregations, in-laws disappointed with other in-laws – and the list is endless.”

The Sages in the Talmud remind us that no person leaves the world possessing even half of his desires fulfilled. The wise person understands that disappointment is a reality for all human beings. To minimize a sense of disappointment, it is wise, says Rabbi Wein, to approach life “with high optimism but also with minimal expectations.” Living a healthy life means not allowing the feeling of disappointment to overwhelm us.

This is the hallmark of Jewish history. In spite of all the setbacks such as the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the Holocaust, Jews as a people never gave in to disappointment. Hope in the future always triumphed.

Jake Jardine learns this valuable life lesson of not succumbing to disappointment. His friendship with Tony energizes and satisfies him. But when life intervenes and Tony and he go their separate ways, Jake and Tony are resilient young men who do not allow past disappointment to defeat them. The “little men” become big men through the crucible of life experience.

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